Last December, members of the University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra premiered my short work Entremets for 14 winds and 2 percussionists. In the midst of Mendelssohn and Brahms, it was a little out of place—like some odd second cousin to the two great composers’ works.
The story of how this little piece came to be is somewhat amusing, and at the request of Philip Thompson, I’m writing it here.
In late October, I was practicing Epistemology Wars (the duo that Roger and I premièred in November) in room B19 of the music building when I received a phone call from Roger Zahab, conductor of the UPSO and my composition teacher at the time. He asked if I was willing to write a short piece for wind ensemble and percussion, to be performed in the last UPSO concert of the semester, less than six weeks away. In my vibraphone-induced torpor, I replied that this sounded like an excellent idea. He gave me a preliminary instrumentation—something like 3 clarinets, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, and percussion—and let me know that the piece would be flanked by Mendelssohn’s Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Overture, Op. 26, and Brahms’s Symphony no. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. I somehow continued to think this was a great idea.
After hanging up, I realized that I’d just been charged with a large responsibility: writing a satisfactory piece for more instruments than I’d ever composed for before, in a shorter time than I’d composed almost anything else, and somehow making it complement two rather prominent works by even more prominent Romantic composers.
I quickly checked out scores and recordings of both pieces and sketched out a mental plan for the new piece. I would start my concert interlude in B minor (the key of the Mendelssohn), using a statement of the Mendelssohn’s first subject in reverse; the end of my piece would be in C minor (the key of the Brahms), with one of the prominent melodies of the Brahms’s opening also quoted in reverse. Other, slighter figures of the Brahms (mostly collections of only a handful of notes) would be quoted as well, though very subtly. Thus, the new work could (but would not necessarily have to) function as a bridge between both works.
The primary material for my piece, though, came from an unfinished orchestral work I’d sketched in high school, before I knew any better. I took a very self-contained portion of this sketch that I particularly enjoyed and elaborated upon it for the new instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, and 2 percussionists (2 triangles, vibraphone, and 3 timpani).
Coming up with a title took some research. I’d already struck upon the analogy of a meal in several courses, as in antiquity—the Mendelssohn was a sort of appetizer, while the Brahms was the meaty main course. I eventually found the term entremets (“between servings”), which could mean a modest, lightly flavored dish or an extravagant, mostly inedible model with symbolic significance, or even a short play presented to nobility during banquets. Based on the first and last connotations, this seemed like an appropriate term for my interlude, and it stuck.
The bulk of the work uses only two contrasting ideas: a melodic theme, first stated by a clarinet over the ensemble’s light eighth-note pulses; and a more harmonic theme, marked by a vibraphone solo and brass “and-one” figures. The Mendelssohn melody (always in reverse) occasionally enters as a contrastive motif. A very different section in the middle of the piece uses four triplet-based melodies that are paired off just before the recap of the harmonic theme.
By this point, I’d strayed from B minor to F major/Lydian; somehow, I needed to get to C minor. I decided to adapt a two-part melodic canon from a short piece I wrote for a collaborative “exquisite corpse” composition the year before, with a slowly changing melodic canon-gone-berserk (à la Ligeti) to push the harmonic center from C major to C minor. Somehow, it all seemed to work.
In less than a month, I sketched out the piece and edited it in Sibelius. Making the 16 individual parts, which included extensive cues, kept me up past 6 a.m. the day I electronically submitted them to Roger. (This sacrifice of sleep is something that I’m sure every composer comes to terms with, and perhaps even enjoys.)
The piece received two short rehearsals before the night of the concert. There were some bugaboos in the première, of course—nearly every première has those—but the overall effect I wanted was there, and I was quite impressed by the players’ handling of my somewhat unconventional piece. (For what it’s worth, I goofed on my own vibraphone solos!) The première performance, recorded by my friend Dave Hidek, can be heard below.
Out of this, I believe that I learned how to write for an event on short notice. This entailed composing something that didn’t contrast too strongly with the rest of the program, but which still retained my musical interests. Judging by the reactions I received after the performance, it apparently worked. This opportunity—which I never imagined would be possible for an undergraduate such as myself—was invaluable in my development as a composer. It’s still the largest ensemble work I’ve ever fully composed, and it taught me more about counterpoint and orchestration than nearly anything else I’ve written.
(Special thanks to Roger Zahab for “commissioning” Entremets, and to Philip Thompson for encouraging me to write this. Very special thanks to the musicians who brought my musical snack to the stage that night.)